Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy,

General Useful Information,


Other Opinionated Comments


Vonda N. McIntyre

Read This First!

McIntyre’s First Law:

Under the right circumstances,
anything I tell you could be wrong.

Table of Contents

Pitfall #1: The Expository Lump

Pitfall #2: It’s Almost Writing

Pitfall #3: Subjunctive Tension

Pitfall #4: Rampant Capitals

Pitfall #5: Species v. Specie

Pitfall #6: McIntyre’s Laws of Titles

Pitfall #7: Neologisms

Pitfall #8: It Looks Like Seem or Appear!

Pitfall #9: Department of Redundancy Department

Pitfall #10: An Activity Almost Like Writing

Pitfall #11: Literal v. Figurative

Pitfall #12: “I Am an Amateur”

Pitfall #1: The Expository Lump,
“As You Know, George,
the Space Station’s Orbit Is Degrading Rapidly,
and We’re Running out of Air.”

Every sf story contains information that the reader must know. Getting that information across gracefully is difficult, but rewarding. Handing it to the reader in the narrative can be done carefully. Handing it to the reader in a lump of expository dialogue is generally not graceful.

Detection trick: If the phrase “As you know,” or “As you should know” would make sense in a line of dialogue, the dialogue is probably an expository lump.

Under no circumstances (except for broad humor) should you insert the phrase “As you know” into a line of dialogue, even if it would make sense. Especially if it would make sense! If the only way to get information to the reader (after you’ve sweated trying to get it in some other way) is by having one character tell it to another who already knows it, for heaven’s sake don’t draw attention to the fact by adding “as you know.”

Useful technique: It’s easier to describe something if it’s broken. If something is broken, then you notice it. If it’s working right, it just sits there being invisible doing its job. Not to be overused!

Pitfall #2: It’s Almost Writing,
Half Baked Weasels

Almost and half (half-smile, &c.) are weasel words that allow you to evade the responsibility of being precise. Their use will drain the life from your prose. Some people litter their pages with these words to no purpose. Beware!

Pitfall #3: Subjunctive Tension,
“Don’t Mince Words, Bones,
Tell Me What You Really Mean!”

Samuel R. Delany coined the term Subjunctive Tension, which is the difference between what you mean and what you actually say. In “realistic” fiction you can get away with a lot of metaphorical (not to say sloppy) phrasings that, in science fiction, can bring the reader up short.

His eyes fell to the floor. (Boing! boing!)
She screwed up her face.(To the ceiling? Owie!)
He ran through the door. (Able to penetrate strong oak in a single bound! Might one possibly mean the doorway?)
She strained her eyes through the viewscreen.(My all-time fave.)

Pitfall #4: Rampant Capitals,
The Nouns of Doom

Be careful about capitalizing words in order to indicate their importance. Several problems attend rampant capitalization.

First, extraneous capitalization tries and fails to conceal a lack of intensity, style, substance, or all those qualities, in your prose.

Second, if you capitalize Many of the Nouns in your Sentences, your Prose your Wish a Story in German to write will read. (In German you capitalize all the nouns.)(And the verbs come last, but that’s a different Pitfall.)

Third, when you sell your novel, the cover blurb will contain every single word you’ve capitalized. Here is a possible result:

On the Plains of Mystery, Prince Greeb of the Empire of Thorns rides his WindHorse, Fred, to challenge the TrollBugs to a FireDuel!

You get my drift. It looks dumb. Don’t set yourself up for it.

Pitfall #5: Species v. Specie,
How Much for Just That Species?

A species is a group of living things reproductively isolated from other groups. The plural of species is species. Specie means money, specifically, coined money.

Other false singulars: Phenomena is plural; its singular is phenomenon. Series is both singular and plural; the singular is not serie. Bacterium is the singular; bacteria is the plural. Biceps is the singular. Bicepses is the plural, though you can use biceps if you insist. There is no such thing as a bicep.

Pitfall #6: Ygdylc‘haafuk’s Revenge,
McIntyre’s Laws of Titles

Never use a title that is (a) impossible to pronounce or (b) embarrassing to say. Doing either causes people to find it awkward to discuss your book. For example, Superluminal (a book of mine) has been misspelled and mispronounced by everybody, up to and including the New York Times (“...her novel Superliminal, which she says means ‘faster than light.’”)

Pitfall #7: Neologisms,
Calling a Rabbit a Smeerp,
This Essay Almost Made
My Spell-Checker Toss Its Cookies

Neologisms are made-up words. Be very careful with them. If you’re good at them, terrific. (Heinlein was great at them. I got all the way through The Moon is a Harsh Mistress before I realized that tanstaafl wasn’t a perfectly good Dutch word, and I used to live in the Netherlands.) If you aren’t, you can make yourself sound silly.

In particular, watch out for what Damon Knight calls “calling a rabbit a smeerp.” Just because you call a long-eared short-tailed lagomorphic mammal with long hind legs a “smeerp” doesn’t make it alien. We all write sf in standard English, unless we are Anthony Burgess (who did made-up dialect well), or some other people who do it not so well. There’s no particular reason to translate words for time, distance, and food into gibberish. (I don’t know why time, distance, and food are so susceptible to this in science fiction, but they are.) If your characters are drinking coffee, have them drink coffee, not “klaa” or “jav.” Coffee’s been around for more than a millennium. It’s probably going to last.

Besides, as a linguistically oriented friend of mine pointed out with some exasperation, almost all the made-up words in science fiction written by English speakers sound like made-up words derived from English.

Pitfall #8: It Looks Like Seem or Appear!
These Seem to Be More Weasels

Be very careful about the use of words such as “seem” and “appear,” especially in science fiction. As Samuel R. Delany pointed out, in sf things can happen that are unlikely to happen in real life or in realistic (“mainstream”) fiction. Therefore, if you use “seem,” you should mean “seem.” As in, “This is what it looked like but this isn’t really what’s going on, so pay attention!” A perceptive reader will note “seem” or “appear” or “looked like,” perk up their ears, and wait for you to tell them what really is going on. If nothing other than the superficial action is going on, the reader is going to be irritated. Eventually the reader will quit trusting you.

Pitfall #9: Department of Redundancy Department,
Department of Redundancy Department

Samuel R. Delany’s technique for determining whether a phrase is redundant (if you have any question): choose one of the words you suspect of being redundant. Switch it to its antonym. If the resulting construction is inherently ridiculous, an oxymoron, you have redundancy. For example, a “large giant.” As opposed to a small giant? Other common speech-habit redundancies include rich heiresses and consensus of opinion.

Hyperbole is a fine and respected literary tradition, and speech habits are indispensable for creating characters. (Think of Stephen Maturin’s charming habit of saying “little small.”)

But when you use these techniques, be sure you know you’re doing it -- and why.

Pitfall #10: An Activity Almost Like Writing,
Something Resembling Weasels

A current, curious, fad among writers who should know better is the construction “[Character] felt something like [emotion].” Example: “He felt something like annoyance.” Extreme example: “She felt something almost like amusement.” Over-the-top example: “He felt something vaguely approaching absurdity.”

One possible explanation for avoiding accurate description is that the writer doesn’t know what the character is experiencing, and can’t take the trouble to figure it out.

In some cases, the writer has grasped at a metaphor and clutched an illusion.

When I encounter this construction, I’m always left with the impression that the character (or more likely, the writer) has such refined sensibilities and lofty feelings that I, the lowly reader, can’t be expected to comprehend them... so why should the writer bother trying to describe them?

Pitfall #11:
Literal v. Figurative,
"His Head Literally Exploded!"

"Figuratively" means that you are speaking metaphorically or symbolically. "Literally" means that you are speaking with precision and realism, that you are saying what exactly happened. "Literally" is not a generic intensifier. If you are talking about someone's headache, "figuratively exploded" is the phrase you're looking for -- at least in comparison to "literally exploded."

Pitfall # 12:
“I Am an Amateur,”
Seven Ways to Get Your Manuscript Rejected:

  1. Turn Page 100 upside-down or surreptitiously dog-ear pages 8 & 9 together to be sure the editor has read the whole typescript. (All editors have seen these tricks; some find them so insulting that they'll leave the pages turned upside-down or dog-eared even if they have read that far.)
  2. Beg the editor to buy your story so you can pay for your mother's operation.
  3. Track down the editor's email address and email your manuscript, even though the publication's guidelines ask you not to.
  4. Send an editor hate mail to inform them how stupid they are for having rejected your story. Quibble with every comment they took the time to make. This is a fine technique for getting future manuscripts rejected.
  5. Ostentatiously display a copyright © notice (on every single page!) so the editor will know not to steal your ideas. (Ideas are easy, and parallel evolution of story lines is common. It's what you do with the ideas that counts.)
  6. Warn the editor outright not to steal your ideas, because you have (or are) a hotshot lawyer. (See #5. Plagiarism does happen -- but it's rare, editors have not, to my knowledge, been the perpetrators, and it always blows up in the plagiarist's face. Editors aren't interested in stealing anyone's stories to make themselves look good. What makes editors look good is finding writers who can write good stories, and publishing them.)
  7. Send a non-standard manuscript "so it will stand out." Pink paper with purple type. Perfect-bound camera-ready manuscripts. Typeset text. If the editor sends you information on proper manuscript format -- by all means, argue with the old fuddy-duddy.

Monday September 08 2003